In Defense of Stevie Johnson, or Whose Culture Is It Anyway?

Joseph RomelContributor IDecember 2, 2011

PITTSFORD, NY - AUGUST 08:  Stevie Johnson #13  of the Buffalo Bills signs autographs during the Buffalo Bills Training Camp at St. John Fisher College on August 8, 2011 in Pittsford, New York.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Stevie Johnson needs to grow up. Or at least that's what I hear. 

According to the anchors on ESPN—who began this week by laughing at Johnson's pantomimed reenactment of Plaxico Burress' self-inflicted nightclub shooting, and are ending it with scolding words and upturned noses—Stevie's act is wearing thin. 

According to Bob Costas, Johnson's coach should bench him for his antics and send a message that such self-indulgent nonsense will not be tolerated. After all, as Costas argued during his weekly bit on NBC's Football Night in America, coaches bench players for poor and costly play, so why not for celebrating in ways that draw penalties?

Pundits on every network decried Johnson's act, but when viewing it all, a difference in tone and intent becomes evident. 

For the former coaches and players, the crime was drawing a flag that cost his team 15 yards. Lost in this discussion is, of course, the inconvenient fact that it wasn't the Plax-Boogie that brought out the flags: it was his acting like a wounded jet and crashing to the ground.

The dance itself wasn't against NFL rules (but don't tell that to Roger Goodell, who fined the Buffalo Bills receiver $10,000 this week), only the part where he went to the ground. In other words, the only part that didn't offend anybody. 

(Oh, well, except for Sione Pouha, who inexplicably linked Johnson's sputtering crash to the tragedies of 9/11. Note his barely-intelligible comments on the matter. Smart people don't talk like that, and they certainly don't think Stevie Johnson was trying to evoke memories of 9/11.) 

For the pundits—sportswriters, commentators, and anchors—the issue is and has always been the idea of a celebration. Costas paid lip service to the fact that Johnson drew a penalty, but his main message was an attack on self-congratulatory players in the NFL.

His target was the pantomime, not the penalized part, and he made most of his speech over footage of other unpenalized celebrations. Costas failed to mention that the finger-guns weren't penalized, of course, and even framed the situations to make it look like the Jets had a short field on the ensuing possession because of the penalty.

In fact, it was substitute kicker Dave Rayner who flubbed the kickoff, leaving the Jets with excellent field position. 

This vitriol and moralist prattle exists in the ever-expanding cultural and generational divide that separates our athletes from the men and women who cover them. People who have never taken part in organized sports—or their experiences at such low levels or so long ago that they might as well have never played—dictating the culture of a sport is as preposterous as a music critic trying to dictate hotel room etiquette to Slipknot.

Why should they decide what's sportsmanlike? 

The short answer is they shouldn't. And there's some evidence to suggest that their moral outrage is falling of deaf ears

But does this mean they should spout their nonsense unchecked? Of course not. Unfortunately, fans tend to parrot the talking heads on television, even when they don't quite understand what all the fuss is about.

This is why most fans will topple like a Jenga set at the first insistence that they elucidate their point: they simply don't know why they're saying what they're saying. 

Even so, we are out there. And we have the numbers. 

I'm not exactly organizing a revolution here, just asking that we have some perspective. The writers and commentators who don't like Stevie's dance are free to say so, but their words have influence (as evidenced by the fine) and need to be taken for what they are: opinions.

These people are not stewards of the game. They aren't important, and they certainly don't dictate what's wrong or right, which dance is acceptable and which isn't. 

And this instead of asking the important questions, such as why these old, white non-athletes are dictating culture to young, black athletes who didn't come from the same America they did.

I guess they'll leave that to amateurs like me...

So I'll endeavor to remind them that they aren't the ones risking their lives and livelihoods out there every week. Since the players don't have a voice in this, let's be the ones to argue on their behalf, to take their culture back for them.

Stevie Johnson today should be kicking himself for dropping a pair of game-winning catches with seconds remaining against the Jets, not for hurting the feelings of an irresponsible clown like Plaxico Burress, or insulting the sensibilities of some 59-year-old broadcaster who has been wealthy longer than Stevie's been on this planet.